For over twenty years, the government of South Africa fought a bitter war of attrition against the Cuba-backed People’s Liberation Army of Namibia, based for most of the conflict in neighbouring Angola. Thousands died for the cause of driving out Communist elements from South Africa’s periphery, and bolstering the Apartheid state’s claim to Western legitimacy.
Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) has very little interest in all that, nor the heterosexual porno magazine given to him by his estranged father before he leaves for the Angolan border. Like every white boy over 16, Nick is expected to enrol, in much the same way as he is expected to enjoy the porn.
Based on the autobiographical novel by André Carl van der Merwe, Moffie (whose title refers to a homophobic slur in Afrikaans) is a neat enough telling of Nick’s experiences in the uber-macho training camp and ultimately his contribution to the Border War. Set in 1981, it’s also an effective portrait of the queer experience amid hyper-masculinity, and the physical (sometimes sexual) tension that underlines so many of his company’s interactions.
Writer-director Oliver Hermanus combines a slick script and sharp direction with stylish cinematography by Jamie Ramsay to create a profoundly claustrophobic oven cooker of a training camp. The higher-ups, particularly Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pesler), frequently make a show of lambasting the occasional “sexual deviant” among the recruits. But what’s more apparent is the sadomasochism of Brand and many others, with the military leadership’s often-sadistic attitudes invariably feeding down to the boys’ own senses of self – with tragic consequences.
Rife with the adolescent intensity of the school changing room, which for some carries a clandestine sexual implication, Moffie – like its main character – succeeds in finding intimacy in a setting that seeks only to manufacture cold-blooded killers. That humanity-despite-dehumanisation arc is no rarity in recent queer cinema, but in Moffie it’s a thoughtful and convincing plea for understanding in a chapter of South African history that its victims still find hard to forget.